Cross-sector collaboration is essential for the future of circular electronics
This article is sponsored by Cisco.
The COVID pandemic has made us more dependent than ever on digital connectivity and telecommunications. From portable devices and displays to servers, routers and wireless access points, millions of businesses and families around the world trust electronic devices for their connectivity and communication needs.
What if the materials needed to make these products run out?
This is not a hypothetical question. The range of recent supply disruptions has made it clear that global supply lines can be shut down at any time and that we must be prepared. The global semiconductor shortage has wreaked havoc on global supply chains, and cobalt shortages are causing price hikes and bottlenecks in the manufacture of smart phone batteries and electric vehicles. Even mundane products like toilet paper and wipes have suffered severe supply shocks over the past year.
In the face of growing uncertainty in the global supply chain, businesses are turning to a circular economy. The principle is simple: by extending the life of products through reuse, repair and refurbishment – and by recovering important raw materials from products at the end of their useful life – we minimize the need to extract more. raw materials for new products. Cisco believes that the creation of a circular economy is as disruptive – in a good way – as the development of the linear economy (take, manufacture, sell, dispose of) that we seek to disrupt. Massive societal benefits also flow from such a model, including less waste, a lower carbon footprint, new employment opportunities, and access to products and technologies for groups that previously could not afford them.
Supply chain resilience and critical raw materials
To create many of the components that make up electronic products, we need specific critical raw materials. Demand for these materials is increasing across a range of industries – including not only telecommunications, but also renewable energy technologies necessary for a clean energy future.
“Critical raw materials are often mined and produced in only a handful of countries, which can expose them to trade barriers, political instability and other socio-economic risks,” says James Souder, consultant at the group. reflection on sustainable development, Metabolic.
A handful of these materials are classified as “conflict minerals”. The risks around them could be exacerbated in the years to come due to climate change and other global challenges – which brings us to the importance of recovering and reusing materials already in circulation.
Design circular products and business models
To make better use of limited resources and build resilience, Cisco and other electronics companies are embracing the circular economy, and it all starts with circular design. By 2025, all new Cisco products and packaging will incorporate circular design principles, helping to keep materials in service for as long as possible.
Currently, many electronic devices must be broken down into raw materials to be recycled and put back into production. Recycling is great, but it’s only one value chain. Reuse saves more carbon and creates a higher level of value, and modularity is one way to achieve this by allowing certain components and parts to be upgraded in existing products or reused in new ones. A good example is the Cisco IR1101 router, which has been modularly designed so that customers can swap out LTE or 5G modules when it suits them, without having to replace the entire device.
Components can also be redesigned to eliminate or reduce the use of high risk materials. Another example of aligning product design with repair, reuse and eventual recycling is Fairphone’s mapping of material recovery routes for its modular phone.
Prioritizing reuse and remanufacturing at product and component level means maintaining the highest intrinsic value of critical materials and minimizing loss of value in the recycling process. This is illustrated in the Value Hill chart (adapted below), with higher circular strategies, such as reuse, preserving the most value throughout a product’s lifecycle.
Along with product design, many companies, including Cisco, are moving towards ‘as a service’ business models where, instead of owning hardware, customers pay monthly for the use of a service that includes hardware, software and maintenance.
Take-back and reuse programs are another way for companies to build circular business models. For example, Cisco is one of many companies participating in the PACE Capital Equipment Pledge announced at the World Economic Forum in 2018. As part of this coalition, Cisco is committed to 100% product return, committing to take back used equipment from any customer around the world free of charge.
Intersectoral collaboration is essential
In practice, the recovery of many materials used in electronics is not always easy, in particular for minerals used in trace amounts which do not have a high economic value. This highlights the importance of working together to find circular opportunities at every step of the electronics value chain, from design to remanufacturing. It also means that companies like Cisco must develop ecosystems that will allow these products to be recovered, rebuilt or refurbished and redeployed in new markets.
To stimulate such collaboration, the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA) is developing an industry-wide framework for the circular movement of materials in electronic production and electronic waste recycling. This work fits the vision developed by the Circular Electronics Partnership, which outlines 40 actions that must occur over the next decade for the electronics industry to achieve circularity.
Some electronics raw materials are already recycled – more than 17% of electronic waste was properly collected and recycled in 2019, according to the Global E-Waste Monitor. To increase this number, the industry needs new tools, technologies, methods and, again, higher levels of collaboration.
Producers often view recycled materials as risky due to inconsistent supply and unknown technical performance. This uncertainty in the demand for recycled materials prevents recyclers from investing in new materials recovery technologies, delaying circular innovation and progress.
And even though Cisco recycles or reuses more than 99% of what it recovers, for complex products such as electronics, not all critical raw materials are recovered in the recycling process. Recyclers and foundries will recover what is technically and economically feasible in their processes.
Take tantalum, for example. Tantalum is recognized as both a critical raw material and a conflict mineral, and is found in specific high performance capacitors used for printed circuit boards and LCD displays. However, tantalum is rarely recovered in the electronics recycling process due to its low concentration in electronic components. In addition, many tantalum capacitors also contain silver, which will be prioritized in the metallurgical recovery process because it has higher economic value. When mixed in the final processing step of silver and other precious metals, tantalum is ultimately oxidized and lost.
Some companies are exploring ways to align product design with metal recovery processes. An important first step is to increase communication along the value chain.
At Cisco, an example of this is a recent workshop we held with our recycling partners and the internal product design community. During this virtual session, the recycling team dismantled several Cisco products, presented an overview of how components would be recycled, and offered advice to our engineers on how to improve the design for dismantling and the recycling. We’re even looking at cutting edge technologies like bioleaching and new separation technologies.
Given the range of initiatives already underway, the electronics industry is well positioned to lead the shift to circular value chains, but this will require radical collaboration, new technologies and the development of supply chains that fuel the economy. demand and create supply incentives.
Stakeholders from all sectors must work together to develop circular business models that minimize supply chain disruptions, reduce environmental and social impact, and stay ahead of changing consumer concerns. Achieving true systems change will require collaboration across all levels of the supply chain, and our organization cannot do it alone.
I passionately believe that the circular economy not only improves the world, but also creates opportunities for accessing new technologies, new jobs, and even entirely new economies – in the same way the internet has created ecosystems entirely. new businesses doing work that was never imagined before. . My team is excited about a circular future.
Learn more about Cisco’s circular economy approach here.